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After slow start to IndyCar season, Arrow McLaren tries to get back on track at Indianapolis 500

INDIANAPOLIS — (AP) — Pato O’Ward picked up his first trophy in nearly two years when he arrived at Arrow McLaren's team lounge in Indianapolis Motor Speedway last weekend.

No, it wasn't the victory celebration O'Ward had planned for his first IndyCar win since July 2022, but it was unusual: He won by default when Josef Newgarden was stripped of his March season-opening win on the streets of St. Petersburg, Florida, because IndyCar officials discovered in April that Team Penske had cheated.

O'Ward's inherited win is the highlight of the team's season heading into IndyCar's biggest race, the Indianapolis 500, as the slumping McLaren team celebrates the 50th anniversary of the first of its two Indy wins with Johnny Rutherford.

“I think sometimes there's a confusion as to what reality is," O'Ward said Wednesday as rain delayed the second straight day of practice on the Brickyard's 2.5-mile oval. "Yes, we're McLaren, we've got fancy shirts and we've got a fancy truck, but we are not Ganassi or Penske. We're not. I think we're going to get there, but I truly think we're the underdogs.”

A year ago, McLaren came to Indianapolis poised to challenge Chip Ganassi Racing for superiority and did an Indianapolis takeover with its branding all over the city. The team even parked four custom-made GTs in front of historic St. Elmo's Steak House in the middle of race weekend.

On race day, though, Newgarden put Team Penske back in victory lane, Ganassi claimed four of the top seven spots and only one McLaren driver, Alexander Rossi, finished in the top 15. Rossi, the 2016 race winner, finished fifth.

McLaren certainly brings name recognition and a well-financed operation to America's top open-wheel circuit. And, as was the case previously with two-time world champion Fernando Alonso, McLaren again has May's feature attraction — this time with 2021 Cup champion Kyle Larson trying to complete the 1,100-mile single-day double at Indy and Charlotte.

On the track, though, it's been tough sledding.

Despite Lando Norris giving the team its first Formula 1 win since 2021 two weeks ago at the Miami Grand Prix, McLaren didn't post an IndyCar win in 2023, failed to make the money round of the $1 million exhibition race at the Thermal Club in March and saw O'Ward get hit this season with multiple penalties for avoidable contact including an incident at Long Beach in which he hit Rossi.

O'Ward sits seventh in the points, with the inherited win his only top-10 finish this season. Rossi is 10th with top-10 finishes in each race except for Barber, where he completed just 60 of 90 laps and wound up 25th.

Clearly, the team is not meeting expectations.

“There's no question about it,” Rossi said. “Do I have an answer? No, because in a lot of ways, in most ways, everything on the inside has been really good. Everything feels better and everyone's working better together, and the car feels better. But the results are worse.”

The lineup also has been in flux since before the season opener.

David Malukas, hired last September when Alex Palou backed out of his contract to join McLaren, broke his wrist and suffered torn ligaments in a mountain bike crash one month before the season opener.

Callum Ilott replaced Malukas in the first two races before reigning F2 champion Theo Pourchaire took over for the next two. Now, Ilott is back for the 500, fresh off his WEC victory at Spa last weekend. It was Ilott's first win in any series since 2020, and his commitments with the Hertz Team Jota team opened up the McLaren seat for Pourchaire to keep the IndyCar ride for the rest of 2024.

“From the driver's side, it doesn't matter in a way because you see even more characteristics,” Rossi said when asked about the changes. “There's even more input from a different perspective, so in a way, it's that beneficial from the team side. It's obviously a big challenge, you know.”

With Rossi in a contract year, Pourchaire racing to maintain his spot in the McLaren stable and speculation looming over McLaren's long-term interest in Ilott or free agent Christian Lundgaard of Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing, the distractions don't appear to be dissipating.

McLaren CEO Zak Brown already has announced he'll skip the next two F1 races, in Imola, Italy, and Monaco, so he can help end the IndyCar team's slump at qualifying this weekend and the May 26 race at Indy.

For now, though, one thing is clear: Arrow McLaren is still trying to catch up with Ganassi and Penske.

“We've been here, what, five years now? We're still in a building phase," O'Ward said. “To be able to really say like, ‘We can take it to these guys’ over the course of a championship, I've signed a contract extension because I believe in this group of people. But it doesn't just happen one day.”

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AP Auto Racing writer Jenna Fryer contributed to this report.

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AP auto racing: https://apnews.com/hub/auto-racing

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